Thursday, 1 October 2015

HMS President

For five years I've been going to dances aboard HMS President at her permanent mooring on the Thames Embankment near Blackfriars Bridge. Only now, though, have I learned about her history, thanks to a tour by the captain.

The President was originally called the Saxifrage and was launched in 1918 as a Q-ship. Her mission was to patrol the sea lanes off southern Ireland (this was before an independent Eire) playing the part of a merchant vessel. German U-boats would surface to board merchantmen, placing explosives aboard any that held materials they considered as “war supplies”. The idea of the Q-ships was that once the submarine was on the surface, the Q-ship would run up its naval colours (a legal requirement) and open fire on the sub. Its main offensive capability, though, was not its gun, but its prow. As the ship was not really a merchantman, it carried no cargo and its lower deck was filled with a huge engine that allowed it a dramatic turn of speed. A hidden rudder allowed it to turn very tightly and ram the submarine.

Model showing her original appearance as 'HMS Saxifrage'

Q-ships were so called because they sailed from Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland. The ships had two crews: a civilian crew who showed themselves on deck, and a naval crew, including gunners, who had to remain out of sight below deck. (The fixing points for the navy’s hammocks are still preserved.) Even when ashore, the civilian crew had to behave as if they were the crew of a genuine merchantman and at sea one would even appear on deck dressed as a woman, to convince any U-boat captain watching through his periscope that what he was seeing was a genuinely civilian vessel.

Despite these efforts, the Germans soon grew wise to the idea of Q-ships and the Saxifrage was never threatened by a U-boat on the surface. Instead, like the other Q-ships, she started to patrol more conventionally armed with her deck gun and depth charges. Soon, though, the war ended. By 1922, Saxifrage’s sea-going days were over and she was permanently moored on the Thames as a Royal Naval Reserve drill ship. Royal Navy Reserve ships in this role are traditionally named President, so Saxifrage was re-christened and remains HMS President to this day.

During World War II the President was brought back into service for gunnery training. A wooden cabin had been built on her aft deck and this was replaced with a metal structure because of the danger of incendiary bombs. The cabin was later converted to the ballroom where I dance.

The President was decommissioned in the 1980s. She remained in the same berth and, being, by now, a London landmark, she was allowed to keep her name, although she is officially HMS President (1918) to distinguish her from the new naval shore establishment which has taken the same name.

View through one of the few remaining portholes.

The President’s engines are gone and her portholes have mostly been replaced with larger windows suiting her new life as a floating office and entertainment venue. Her lines can still be made out under the new superstructure (some of it added by the navy to provide more room for drill and offices in her shore-base role).

HMS President is one of only three Royal Navy warships surviving from the First World War. As part of the centenary celebrations of the war, she was painted in a modern interpretation of the ‘dazzle’ camouflage that she wore in her original role. Until 2014 she was painted in Victorian battleship livery with a black hull, white superstructure and a buff yellow funnel and masts She was the last Royal Navy ship to maintain this livery.

If you want to see her, you had best do so before January. Work on the new Thames sewer means that she will be leaving her berth at the beginning of 2016 and the owners are taking the opportunity to put her in dry dock. With luck, she will be back on the Thames, as good as new, later in the year.

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